State’s top forester downplays Bush influence in White River
The top U.S. Forest Service official in Colorado is downplaying controversial changes that the Bush administration made to the White River National Forest Plan.Regional Forester Rick Cables claimed the changes won’t weaken protections for lynx and water quality as some critics contend. Instead, the changes ordered by U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary David Tenny bring the White River National Forest’s management practices into compliance with broader federal policies, Cables said during a recent visit to the Roaring Fork Valley.Tenny’s decisions – called a “discretionary review” in federal bureaucracy parlance – weren’t unprecedented. Other officials in his post have made changes to forest plans, according to Cables.”This administration doesn’t have the market on doing that,” Cables said.But in this case, critics contend the changes were politically motivated by an administration partial to industries and extractive uses.The White River National Forest Plan was completed in June 2002 after it was signed by Cables. It immediately faced numerous appeals from environmental groups as well as industries. Appeals are common because forest plans dictate management practices for 10 or 15 years.The 2.3-million-acre White River National Forest stretches from south of Aspen to Meeker and from Rifle to Vail Pass. After reviewing the appeals for two years, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth upheld the plan in most cases and directed the White River staff to make some minor adjustments.In December, Tenny rolled back special protections the plan gave to habitat for lynx, which is listed as a federal endangered species, and water quality. U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar is asking Bush administration officials to explain Tenny’s decisions.The changes are under fire from conservation groups, which contend the actions were part of the Bush administration’s anti-environmental agenda.Cables said he doesn’t see it that way.”I’ve read some of the things about we’re going to diminish some of our protections of lynx or the whole orientation toward working for lynx habitat, and that can’t be farther from the truth,” Cables said.The Forest Service is still dedicated in determining if lynx can survive long-term in Colorado, which is at the southern end of its range and possibly outside of that range, Cable said.He noted that the update of White River National Forest Plan was started before lynx was listed as an endangered species. The strategy adopted between the Forest Service, which managed the habitat, and the Colorado Division of Wildlife, which had lynx to reintroduce, was to see if the animals could thrive and preclude the need for listing.”The idea was let’s put some of these critters out on the ground and see how they do,” Cables said. “The science is not really clear about lynx and ultimately about the viability of lynx populations.”The wildlife division’s data shows some reintroduced lynx migrated to the Independence Pass area east of Aspen.The agency remains “four-square” behind the experiment to see if lynx are viable in the state, Cables said. Until the answer is known, Tenny ruled that management practices of potential lynx habitat in the White River National Forest must comply with a regional plan that’s being drafted.Cables said Tenny’s decision on watershed management practices in the White River also had to comply with prior agreements between the federal and state governments. When final water standards are drafted, “there will be adequate protections in place for this special place. No question that’s going to happen,” Cables insisted.Cables, who has been with the Forest Service for nearly 30 years, received key promotions in his career during the Clinton administration. He became the regional forester in Denver the same month President Bush took office for his first term.Cables said there is no doubt that the occupant of the White House influences public land management agencies. “Certainly administrations change and of course you feel that,” he said. “That’s the nature of our democracy.” But he also said the Forest Service is largely insulated from politics because its chief is a career professional rather than a political appointee.”Our policies are built for the long haul,” Cables said. “You just don’t see this huge pendulum change every four years or every time there’s a change in the administration.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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